By Liam Twomey
“They are like lions in the autumn but lambs in the spring.” Michel Platini first uttered these withering words on the subject of England’s persistent failure to make any kind of impact when major international tournaments roll around, but his assessment might just as readily be applied to Arsenal in recent years.
It has become traditional for the Gunners’ hopes of winning a trophy to finally be put to bed in March and April, and the third month of 2014 has yielded just two victories from six matches in all competitions: an underwhelming north London derby win over Tottenham and a 4-1 demolition of Everton which keeps the FA Cup trophy the lone beacon of light on a steadily darkening horizon.
Arsenal’s unlikely Premier League title challenge has been undermined by injuries for some time, but it is a succession of grim thrashings away from home at the hands of supposed rivals that has destroyed the confidence. Manchester City cruised to a 6-3 win in December, Liverpool plundered five goals against the Gunners in February and a week ago Chelsea defaced Arsene Wenger’s 1000th game with such brutal ease that many fans are once again asking big questions.
Gunners' last six games
||Arsenal 2-2 Swansea
||Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal
||Tottenham 0-1 Arsenal|
||Bayern Munich 1-1 Arsenal
||Arsenal 4-1 Everton
||Stoke 1-0 Arsenal
Robert Pires, an Arsenal legend whose name evokes memories of the glorious past successes which have granted Wenger the unparalleled level of patience he now enjoys, remains firmly in his former manager’s corner. He still trains with the first team squad every day at their London Colney base and is in the process of acquiring his coaching badges.
Yet while it is clear where his loyalties lie, Pires admits Wenger’s delay in announcing his intention to add to his 18 years in charge of the Gunners might have had a detrimental effect on their stuttering season. “I’m confident… well, I hope he will stay!” the Frenchman tells Goal at the plush central London hotel where he is promoting Barclays’ #YouAreFootball experiment.
“There is a little bit of confusion in the situation because normally he would have already signed the contract, but maybe he can wait until the end of the season or the FA Cup [to announce it].
“I love Arsene Wenger but the situation for the players is maybe not good.”
There have, of course, been no shortage of theories put forward in an attempt to explain the persistent flaws that keep Arsenal from rejoining football’s elite winners and periodically humiliate them: a lack of discipline, tactical naivety, the absence of a top striker, a lightweight midfield, mental weakness, inferior physical conditioning and many more.
Pondering the question, Pires finds no easy answers. “I don’t know [what they need] because football has changed,” he admits. “Football in England is very tough because you don’t just have one or two good teams, so every training session and every game is very difficult.
“Maybe Arsenal need more leadership. They have a good squad with good quality, and they spent a lot of money on Ozil, but maybe [they need] players like Tony Adams or Martin Keown, or Patrick Vieira, or Dennis Bergkamp or Thierry Henry. But [unfortunately for the fans] this time is finished.”
Ozil has suffered more than anyone else from the Gunners soul-searching. Heralded as a timely statement of the club’s renewed ambition on his summer arrival from Real Madrid, in recent months that club-record £42 million price tag has made him the obvious lightning rod for any and all frustrations, even if the German’s individual form has undeniably dipped with that of his team.
Having made the transition between the Premier League and La Liga in the opposite direction when he moved from Arsenal to Villarreal in the summer of 2006, Pires believes the criticism of Ozil is unfair. “Mesut has had a good impact for Arsenal,” he insists. “He’s a very good player – one of the best in his position in Europe.
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“I remember my first season [at Arsenal after moving from Marseille] was terrible, but after that you play and you learn. I believe in Mesut.”
Ozil will miss Saturday’s clash with City at the Emirates Stadium, when another battering would spark a new wave of disillusionment. Pires, however, does not believe this is likely.
“The difference on Saturday is that we play at home,” he points out. “I understand why the fans were upset because it’s not normal that you concede two goals after 10 minutes. After that it’s mission impossible, especially when you play Liverpool, Manchester City or Chelsea. But on Saturday they play at the Emirates with our fans and the atmosphere will not be the same.
“It was very difficult on Sunday after the 6-0 because everyone was upset, along with Wenger and the fans. But that’s in the past now, and everyone needs to focus on the game against City.
“I think it’s a final for Arsenal. If they win on Saturday they can think for the title.”
But is he confident they will get the job done this time? “Of course,” he replies earnestly, “because I always believe in my team, in my club, and in Arsene Wenger.”
Robert Pires was speaking ahead of the Barclays #YouAreFootball Experiment. As part of the campaign to thank fans for making the Barclays Premier League what it is, Barclays is tracking the emotions of fans through monitoring their heart rates during this weekend's matches. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/barclaysfootball and join the conversation with #YouAreFootball.
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